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EGYPT Coup, Not Revolution

Updated: March 5, 2011 4:40 pm

Egypt continues to be in news all over the world. People are wondering whether the Egyptian development will have echoes in other parts of the Arab world, particularly in Iran and Saudi Arabia. Experts are also wondering whether the development will embolden the people in Pakistan and China to throw away their tyrannical regimes. In one of our previous issues, we had covered the developments in Egypt, with which India has had strong ties. In fact, I had discussed its implications for India. My basic premise remains the same—behind the unrest in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world are the factors of corruption, inflation and growing unemployment/under employment, the factors   that are very much there in India as well. I had also argued that it was little premature to describe the event in Egypt as a democratic revolution. Since then, President Hosni Mubarak has been forced to abandon power. This issue of our magazine covers various aspect of that change, but still I will hesitate to view that change of power as a revolution. Let me concentrate on that point.

                Mubarak is no doubt out. But who is in charge in Egypt? It is the military of which Mubarak was the most important component all these years. So, despite the pro-democracy movement appearing to have succeeded without violence, the fact remains that the military is still in charge. A military council has been named to govern in Mubarak’s place. The military council has abolished the constitution and dissolved parliament, promising a new constitution to be ratified by a referendum and stating that the military would rule for six months, or until the military decides it is ready to hold parliamentary and presidential elections. In other words, while Mubarak is gone, the military regime in which he served has dramatically increased its power.

                It is to be noted that the Egyptian regime was founded in a coup led by Col Gamal Abdel Nasser and modelled after that of Kemal Ataturk of Turkey, basing it on the military. It was intended to be a secular regime with democratic elements, but it would be guaranteed and ultimately controlled by the military. Nasser believed that the military was the most modern and progressive element of Egyptian society. And it has been the feature under his successors: Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak. Both of them were senior military officers and wore civilian clothes through formal elections of varying dubiousness. The Egyptian regime consisted—and consists—of complex institutions centered on the military. The country’s civilian bureaucracy is strongly controlled by the military.

                In fact, George Friedman of the famous strategic think-tank Stratfor makes sense when he argues that the latest upheaval in Egypt was some type of a military coup under democratic cloths against the individual leadership of Mubarak. According to him, but for the tacit support of the military, the protestors in Egypt were not strong enough to force Mubarak to quit.   As he says, “Certainly, there was a large crowd concentrated in a square in Cairo, and there were demonstrations in other cities. But the crowd was limited. It never got to be more than 300,000 people or so in Tahrir Square, and while that’s a lot of people, it is nothing like the crowds that turned out during the 1989 risings in Eastern Europe or the 1979 revolution in Iran. Those were massive social convulsions in which millions came out onto the streets. The crowd in Cairo never swelled to the point that it involved a substantial portion of the city.

                “In a genuine revolution, the police and military cannot contain the crowds. In Egypt, the military chose not to confront the demonstrators, not because the military itself was split, but because it agreed with the demonstrators’ core demand: getting rid of Mubarak.” And since the military was the essence of the Egyptian regime, it is odd to consider this a revolution.

                Now the question is why the military wanted Mubarak out. It was perhaps due to the fact that the military did not approve of Mubarak’s move to appoint his 47-year-old son Gamal as the successor. Mubarak was a part of the military, but his son was not. And this the military did not like. Since Gamal Mubarak was neither a career military officer nor linked to the military’s high command, which had been the real power in the regime, the military thought that President Mubarak was implicitly trying to overthrow the military regime to establish something akin to hereditary monarchy, as is the system in many parts of the Arab world. In other words, the military feared that the regime could not survive ambitions of Mubarak, who, ironically, was supposed to be its defender. And that is why it clearly made a distinction between Mubarak as an individual and his regime.

                To quote Friedman again, “The demonstrators never called for the downfall of the regime. They demanded that Mubarak step aside. This was the same demand that was being made by many if not most officers in the military months before the crowds gathered in the streets. The military did not like the spectacle of the crowds, which is not the way the military likes to handle political matters. At the same time, paradoxically, the military welcomed the demonstrations, since they created a crisis that put the question of Mubarak’s future on the table. They gave the military an opportunity to save the regime and preserve its own interests.”

                Of course, it would be argued that the latest coup will turn into a revolution as the military has promised to hold genuine democratic elections in six months time. One would be extremely happy to see that happening, though if history is any guide, one needs to be cautious about that optimism. “Six months” is a long time for the military, which has been deeply enmeshed in running the country. Secondly, the term “democracy” is not usually understood in the Arab world the way we in India and the West do.

                In fact, the regime in Iran, which came after the overthrow of the autocratic “Shahs” in the seventies, calls itself democratic! The Turkish model of democracy in a Muslim-dominated state is strongly controlled by the military. So is the situation in Algeria. It is equally worth noting that of late, the military, despite its inherent secular belief, has been co-opting the religion-driven (that is Islamic) parties in some form or the other. Take, for instance, the case of Egypt. Mubarak, all told, had allowed some leaders of the “Muslim Brotherhood” to enter parliament as independent candidates. Secondly, he had also appropriated the fundamentalist Brotherhood’s moral discourse. For the last ten or fifteen years, the Mubarak regime had stirred moral panics and waved the banner of Islam, attacking single working women, homosexuals, “devil-worshipping internet users”, “trash-recycling pig farmers”, rent-control squatters, as well as Bahai, Christian and Shia minorities. In its morality crusades, the Mubarak government burned books, harassed women, and excommunicated college professors. Thus, one can legitimately argue that Egypt has already experienced the politicisation of Islam. And this non-democratic feature is going to continue.

                What, then, is the conclusion as far as the real changes in Egypt are concerned? As of now, an 82-year-old dictator having dynastic ambition has been thrown out of office. The military junta will now enjoy the absolute power since the constitution and parliament are gone. The liberals world over want genuine democracy in Egypt. But nobody could be sure that it really will happen that way.

By Prakash Nanda

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